Can High Street fashion ever be ethical?

When I say the word ‘fashion’, what do you think of?

Do you see thin, beautiful, and glamorous looking people? Or do you see beyond that? I see a deeply unethical industry with poor pay, dangerous working conditions, human trafficking, eating disorders, and environmental destruction. An industry that has created 52 seasons a year to fuel consumption and drive profits, an industry that guns down its own workers when they try to protest for a minimum living wage. I see an industry that severs 40,000 Chinese workers fingers every single year. Fashion is out of control.

I love fashion, but I hate the way the industry is. I often get asked the same question; can fashion ever really be ethical?

Sadly I don’t think it can be. It operates under capitalist imperatives: profit and inequality. The claims to be ethical are often just green wash. Fast fashion brands such as Primark and Matalan are the not the only problem, it affects designer clothing too, they are just better at hiding it in their extortionate margins. I am going to explore the three factors that ensure fashion capitalism is unethical: profit, inequality and a monopolised industry.


Fashion brands aim to beat competition and satisfy the shareholders through growing profits. The easiest way to increase profit is to lower costs, and this mean reducing wages. It means companies treat the environment like it’s a free resource. In order to manufacture just one cotton t-shirt, 5000 litres of water is needed, this is the same as 20,000 cups of tea. They also lower costs by refusing to pay compensation when there is pollution or people die through lack of improvements in health and safety within their supply chains.


Capitalism requires inequality; racism, sexism, homophobia, child labour and tax evasion. The fashion industry grows when the rule of law is weakest and people are willing to work under any conditions. Philip Green, owns Arcadia, which owns several large brands such as Topshop, Burton and Miss Selfridge. He is a classic example of weakness in law, very successfully evading tax at others expense. He pays no tax on his £5 billion wealth, since he registered his wife as a resident in Monaco.

Fashion is all about differentiating yourself from others, particularly in luxury fashion this means differentiating yourself from those less fortunate than yourself. Trends trickle down from high-end catwalks to become mass marketed and less desirable. Inequality propels from the industry as well as being central part of it. The industry creates a false need that is fulfilled in material pharmacies, rather than emotional human connection. No one is benefitting from these poor quality goods, made badly to ensure you that you continue to buy. Who benefits from the dumping or ruining of economies as a result?

The huge reduction of sweat shops in the UK was no accident and it was done through a collective movement where workers fought for their rights. As workers in countries like Cambodia are being gunned down when protesting for five per cent pay increase, we should be standing with them.

Monopolised Fashion Industry

In the US, ten companies generate 95% of fashion retail sales. Creativity and identity become things created by corporations, seeking profit not searching after real creativity. In response to Rana Plaza companies stepped up green marketing and launched associations with smaller grass root projects. All of these efforts are to just reassure the customer that the brand is listening to them. The idea that big corporations can be tamed is ridiculous. Capitalism can’t be ethical, the economic system has devastated lives and the planet. When encased in a broader system, intentions are irrelevant – just look at the issues connected with The Body Shop being part-owned by L’Oréal.

Consumers have been told that they are responsible for the atrocities happening in the fashion industry. Through their love of clothing, we feel responsibility, guilt and shame. The emphasis should be placed on the problems in the industry not on consumer decisions. It is not an individual problem or an individual action, the only solution is a collective one. Shopping ethical is portrayed as the way out, not campaigning. This is allowing the people who are actually responsible to get away with it. A fund was set up for $3 billion which would transform the 4,500 factories in Bangladesh. In context, considering the $150 billion annual turnovers of retail giants, this is not a huge amount. The reason this hasn’t yet happened, is because retailers haven’t wanted it too. $3 billion is a large chunk of profit. If the five siblings of Walmart (each with a personal fortune of $18 billion) gave 3.5 per cent of their wealth, they could change all of this. But the shareholders unfortunately will not accept this drop in profit.

The only way to make fashion ethical is to overthrow capitalism and develop a new system based on fairness and equality. Change should be driven out of anger not guilt, solidarity not empathy and focusing on forming a movement of change not changing our shopping habits. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely believe we all have a personal responsibility to actively think about what are purchasing. I committed last year to buy 75 per cent second hand and 25 per cent on ethical brands. But we need to remember you can not buy justice. If we are to really bring about change, we all need to get actively involved, asking brands ‘Who made my clothes?’.

Charlotte Instone

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